Xbox 360 Review - Sonic The Hedgehog
Developer Sega • Platform Microsoft Xbox 360 • Version Reviewed UK full • UK Release November 17th 2006
The following impressions contain spoilers for Sonic’s section of the game.
Sonic is a mammal with a mission: to combine the best aspects of his previous 3D outings. Sonic Adventure was a masterpiece, spoilt only by a lack of solidity in some of its action stages. Its sequel corrected this, but at the expense of the wide-open environments that made its predecessor such a joy. Instead of the carefully custom-built action stages, pre-constructed items of scenery were arranged and re-arranged in a confined trench for Sonic to dash through. The view was spectacular, but the impression of each level as a real and unique place was replaced by a sense of a kit-built environment. This feeling persisted in Sonic Heroes, heightened by its glitchy Renderware based mess of an engine, with the same code base ensuring that whatever innovation Shadow the Hedgehog brought to the party sank without trace. The next-gen debut of the character has been hyped as his rebirth, and hopes are high as Dr Eggman launches a spectacular FMV assault on a thinly disguised Venice…
While there’s a Zelda title out there that wants its plot back, the unfolding scenario does manage to provide something genuinely different from previous games. Creator Yuji Naka, who departs from Sega after this project to launch his own studio, stated that he wanted to explore how his character would fare in the real world. The result of his efforts in many ways emphasises Sonic’s unconventionality in the modern world of videogame heroes. At the opening of the story, Sonic cheerily runs into the spotlight, ready for adventure. The contrast with the start of Shadow’s chunk of the game, as he infiltrates a military base on the orders of the government, rams home how the blue blur belongs to an earlier age of his medium.
It’s impossible to talk about the tone of the game without mentioning Sonic’s “relationship” with Princess Elise, easily the most controversial aspect of the game’s publicity drive. The franchise has been here before, with the non-canonical Sonic X television series frequently focusing on the friendship between the hedgehog and a lonely kid. However, replacing the eight-year-old boy with a teenage girl in heels does ensure that the matter is rather more centre-stage. Rather than the feared addition of lust to the title character’s motivation, the relationship is treated as an exploration of a human falling in love with a cartoon character, with rather touching results. Despite the bile that the concept has attracted from many, the scenes in question emphasise the awkwardness of romance in a Sonic game. The hedgehog’s blank incomprehension when Elise impulsively hugs him speaks volumes, as does his reducing her to tears by causally talking of moving on from Soleanna once the adventure is over.
And the game itself? Starting with the good news, the majority of the action stages are sublime. Wave Ocean, White Acropolis, Crisis City, Radical Train, Kingdom Valley and Aquatic Base offer the very best of 3D platforming, with a solidity that eluded the 128-bit Sonic games. Physics in a Sonic game might sound like an absurdity, but the incorporation of Havoc middleware into the title does make a real difference. The fights between Sonic and the badniks gain a real since of weight due the to modelling of explosions and flying debris, while the less artificial distribution of rings after taking a hit sets the title apart from the previous generation of hardware. Boss battles are uniformly superb- in particular, the Egg Genesis is arguably the best of any Sonic game. They’ve even worked out how to make character Vs fights work, something that has eluded the team since Sonic & Knuckles. The music is never less than tolerable, and is frequently excellent. The main guitar riff, and its many variations, is arguably the best work that Jun Seoune (regular Sonic composer) has done.
Since the introduction of “grinding” in Sonic Adventure 2, shoving a level full of rails has been a simple way for designers to give a misleading impression of variety in an action stage. Here, the grind sections are used with admirable restraint, requiring skill to access and not diluting the main focus of the title. A prime example occurs when Sonic has to catch up with a runaway train- you can either run along the tracks, being slowed down by avoiding oncoming locomotives, or with a bit of lateral thinking, take a quicker route by grinding on the overhead power lines. The references to pretty much every Sonic game to date are well incorporated, being subtle enough to pass by for newcomers but obvious to fans. The return of enemies from Sonic 3, the incorporation of Sonic 2’s ending theme and a reprise of the killer whale sequence from Sonic Adventure make it clear that the game is intended as a fond farewell by Naka, as well a celebration of his character’s fifteenth birthday.
With a bold high concept and skilful design, what could go wrong? Well, the answer hits you as soon as the first gameplay sequence kicks in. It’s painfully obvious that Sonic Team simply ran out of time for building the city hub level. Repeating textures, and basic, boxy buildings evoke a pleasant sense of nostalgia for the Dreamcast, but look hopelessly out of place compared to the life and vigour of the action stages, and the detailed character models. The lack of voice acting for the civilians reinforces the perception that the construction of this core area came at the bottom of the "to do" list. In 2005, the game was announced as being released for Sonic’s fifteen birthday. Long time Sonic fans, who watched Sonic 3 literally being cut in half to get it out of the door in 1993, winced. Those fears have been partly justified, with any enjoyment that might be (now loading) obtained from the challenge-based side missions (now loading) removed by the need (now loading) for constant disk access. This is a problem with the game as a whole, with lengthy load times even during the action stages, but the frustration caused during the sub-scenarios is unbearable. Situations arise where you have fifteen seconds of waiting just to read one line of text, going back to the loading screen before attempting the task proper. Another causality is the ambitious combo-based scoring system used in demo, junked in favour a much simpler calculation.
The determination to incorporate other heroes into Sonic titles continues, with much of the plot being handled by Shadow and Silver. However, the arguable dilution of the title’s focus is justified by way in which they both highlight what Sonic The Hedgehog is not. In personalities, with a shadowy military spy and the psychotic saviour of a conquered world, and gameplay, with vehicle based gunplay and Half-life style gravity manipulation, they serve to strengthen Sonic’s uniqueness, not weaken it. In terms of play, these additional characters manage to bring interesting variations to the levels, without the gimmicky feel that dogged some of the bonus characters in Sonic Adventure. The throwaway cameo characters, however, are arguably a misapplication of resources that would have been better spent elsewhere. For example, was it really worth bothering to model all of Knuckles’ moves properly for a four-minute cameo, with other areas of the title crying out for attention? That said, after eight years, Naka and Oshima deserve credit finally figuring out a way to make Tails function in 3D.
Sonic The Hedgehog appears to be about a month and a half of development away from being able to stand alongside Sonic 3 & Knuckles and Sonic Adventure, as the best that the series has to offer. Some areas of the game do reach those heights, making it all the more disheartening when the obviously unfinished sections drag the player back down to earth.